Unsung Hero

The image of that car was seared into my mind as if with a branding iron. It was the summer of 1983. It was the moment I realized that cars were much more important than life or death.

BMW e24 shark nose 635csi
The beautiful “Shark Nose” 6 series

I now know that it was a BMW 6 series but my 8 year old self had never seen anything like it before. Sure I had seen tons of BMWs before and of course there were more two door cars knocking around in the early 80’s than there are now. But a car as long and gorgeous as that with only two doors! I looked in vain at the bootlid but there was nothing to see on this debadged beauty to even give a hint what type of BMW this was. Despite asking everyone I knew (and plenty of others that I didn’t) it took me almost a year to see another and to know that what I had seen that summer’s day was a 6 series.

Over the years I have learnt more and more about this car and it remains a permanent fixture in my own personal top three. It was designed by bordelais, Paul Bracq when he was head of design at BMW in the early 70’s. I had never heard of him up to this point in time, which I found incredible when I learnt what was to be found in his huge and varied portfolio. Fourteen years earlier he had been working as a designer at Mercedes when he and his boss, Rudolph Uhlenhaut were charged in 1959 with what must have been one of the most challenging tasks ever in car design:

“Replace the 300sl Gullwing”

Mercedes 300sl gullwing
The 300sl with it’s famous “gullwing” doors

It was never going to have the “gullwing” doors of its predecessor. (They had been a necessity due to the exhaust running along the side of the car making standard doors impractical), but Paul penned one of the most delicately beautiful cars ever seen with its concave “pagoda roof”, tiny tail lights and then put his own stamp on the classic sl grill.

Paul Bracq and Bela Barenyi in front of w113 pagoda
Paul (on the left) stands in front of his beautiful creation with co-designer Bela Barenyi

 

I could just look at this car for hours. It is perfect from every angle. Maybe it was a little too heavy (despite using aluminium in it’s construction), slightly underpowered compared to modern cars(150 ps at launch) and early iterations only had disc brakes up front but just look at it. None of these faults can be laid at Paul’s door. I could easily live with these minor shortcomings (if I had €50000 and a garage) while driving the ultimate boulevard cruiser. Its looks have only improved with time and it justifiably continues to be a bona fide classic. Values of good examples continue to rise.
Needless to say Paul got the top design job at Mercedes and went on to oversee all production up to 1967 including the massive Grosser (no self respecting despot could do without one right up to the 80’s!) and the beautiful S class of the time.

He was then persuaded to return to France in 1967 to head up the development team of the then ultra modern TGV. Not strictly speaking a car I know but what a gorgeous piece of design. Apart from changing colour from orange to blue the look of the train has changed very little today, over 40 years later.

Orange original TGV
An Original TGV

While still working with Brissonneau & Lotz (the engineering company based in Nantes that was building the TGV) he penned a prototype sportscar for BMW. The Bavarians were so impressed they offered him the role of chief of design in 1970. It was a very different BMW to today and while there had been many important BMWs up to this point it certainly wasn’t the massive carmaker it is now. Paul’s classic designs helped the company grow strongly and it could be argued his design philosophy was still visible in BMWs right up to the turn of the century. Again he faced a truly daunting task- Design a replacement for the achingly beautiful cs and csl coupes.

BMW cs
The 6 series’ beautiful predecessor

He came up with the 6 series. An impossible combination of purpose and elegance. A sharp crease all the way down its side and its unmistakeable shark’s profile. The engineers stuck a powerful straight six (initially with 185ps rising to a whopping 286ps in the Msport model) under the massive bonnet and it remains as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1975. He also oversaw the 2002 turbo (the first ever turbo charged production car), the original 7 series and the prototype BMW turbo which Giugiaro tweaked some years later to create BMW’s first ever supercar, the legendary M1.

The briefest of glances at the cars that followed both the “pagoda” and the “Shark nosed” 6 shows us how challenging it is to follow a classic design. The iconic sl was replaced in 1971 by the overweight R107 which had none of the delicacy or class of it’s predecessor. Paul’s 6 series was produced (with admittedly some tweaks) continually until 1989. It wasn’t officially replaced however until 2003. I really wish they hadn’t bothered. If you have deliberately “forgotten” how either of these cars look and don’t want to be reminded of just how ugly they are please skip ahead to the next paragraph, that said I am reluctantly posting a picture of them here just to remind you of how badly things actually went. They do serve to remind us though, of how special Paul’s work was and maybe we should be thankful for that.

 

Mercedes sl r107
MB’s Hart to Hart special

 

BMW 645ci
Replacement for Paul’s 6 series. I can’t find the words to describe how bad this looks!

In 1975 he came home to work in France at Peugeot. He changed role and became head of interior design, and remained there for twenty years. Those of you under thirty might be forgiven for being a little disappointed at this news, however there was a time when Peugeot cars weren’t squishy bulbous blots visually polluting our roads (607 anyone?). During Paul’s time there the company produced many notable cars. For me the most important was the 205, the car credited with saving the company, a beautiful cleanly conceived city hatchback. The GTI version is often still considered a benchmark to compare other hot hatches against. Although Paul is not credited with designing this vehicle (Gerard Welter oversaw this car) it is not hard to see some of his influence, especially from the rear.

Peugeot 205 gti
Peugeot’s pocket rocket-The 205 Gti

Although technically retired, Paul, now in his 80’s continues to draw, sculpt and judge at many car shows worldwide. His family have opened a workshop in his home town of Bordeaux called Les Ateliers Paul Bracq. They specialize in restoring and maintaining his beautiful “pagoda”. Paul is truly an artist. His work has always exuded elegance, understatement and continues to retain a timeless appeal. He has certainly never received the renown he deserves having headed the design team at both Mercedes and BMW and having created some of the most beautiful cars ever. He is probably most remembered for the “pagoda” but for me his masterpiece remains the E24 6 series.

10 thoughts on “Unsung Hero”

  1. Neat blog! Is your theme custom made or did you
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  2. Thanks for that. Bracq´s Work at BMW was not something I was aware of. As a result of my interest in Peugeot I found out he did the Peugeot 505 interior, phase 1. The phase 2 is monstrous. I don´t think he worked his magic on the 604 despite it being in production for a good part of Bracq´s time at Peugeot. Isn´t interesting that a French chap created the cars we consider essentially German? And the Italian Bruno Sacco carried on where Bracq left off at MB. And oddly, under the German Gordon Wagener MB cars are now a very long way from being properly German.
    I´ll disagree polititely about the 607. If you want a big, comfortable car able to to 600 miles on a tank of fuel then there are not many to choose from that are as roomy or restrained as the big Peugeot. I never liked the grille but after ten years I can accept it and I think the rear treatment is really nice. I think Ford ripped it off for the last Mondeo saloon. About the BMW 6 series: yes, it´s a pretty bad bit of work and the 1976 6-series shows it up in every way. Did you see the upsetting scene in Moonlighting where a 6 is trashed in a car park? If you haven´t, don´t.

    I can´t claim such a good design as the car that imprinted on my young mind. I think the first one I noticed was a Granada.

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    1. I know it’s a bit predictable but Sacco and Bracq are right up there for me. I’ve often thought the same about the two big German manufacturers having that Latin influence yet still remaining teutonic to the core. Absolutely love the big old Africa crossing Peugeots and the 604 is perhaps the nicest of all-robust yet with very delicate lines (Pininfarina?). 607 is very comfy but to me it looks a little overweight and understyled compared to the 604. Apart from the exquisite 407 coupe the last really nice pug for me was the 205. RCZ is beginning to grow on me though and despite trying to be a little German the new 308 is a step in the right direction. Have to say quite like the early Granada especially with the “banana” tail lights and square headlamps. Maybe I watched The Sweeney too often growing up with Regan’s square toed slip on pressed firmly to the floor.

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  3. I´ve hankered after a 604 for at least a decade and keep an eye out for the prices. A ropey one costs about €1500 and good ones reach €10,000 and they usually live in Berlin. Not uncommonly a museum quality one comes up, a fossil with perfect paint, uncreased cloth and no rust. I wonder who might have wanted such a car and then never really got around to driving it. I sat in one about ten years ago and it was much more convincingly well-built than a Citroen CX. I´ll get one one day, drive it for six months and sell it.

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  4. Once saw it described as having a “regal calmness”. Interesting that Berlin seems to be where they are spending their middle age. I had an Aunt who drove a CX Pallas for years so feel nostalgic towards the Citröen. The closest I’ve ever been to a 604 is a 505 estate ( which was huge).

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    1. I loved when I learnt that fact. Perfect example of form following function. I don’t think they would have been as cool had they just been there for the look.

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